Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

Image result for the alps stephen o'shea

Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5

Advertisements

Book Review: Fontenoy 1745

Osprey Publishing’s recent release, Fontenoy 1745, retells the story of the War of Austrian Succession’s most famous battle. An Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian force commanded by the Duke of Cumberland came face to face with Marechal de Saxe’s French forces in the small Belgian town of Fontenoy, just outside Tournai. Written by Michael McNally and illustrated by Sean O’Brogain, this book opens up a near-forgotten war in Europe’s history.

Image result for fontenoy 1745
Osprey Publishing’s new book: Fontenoy 1745

Praise: Cumberland’s tactical errors are pointed out bluntly, and rightfully so. The book makes its statements of how the Anglo-Dutch forces were uninformed and very strong-willed to their plans. Saxe’s flexibility and use of multiple columns is depicted in a few maps and really shows what a complex network the French general made. There are also reconstructed uniforms in the book of many units of interest such as the Mousquetaires du Roi of the French army. On-site photographs are always great, but McNally manages to capture the correct weather too. His misty pictures clearly show how hard it was for the early-morning attacks troops made. Osprey Publishing always do a good introduction to a topic, and the War of Austrian Succession is covered briefly and provides a solution to any confusion one may have about what the British or the French fighting in Belgium has to do with the Austrian throne.

Image result for fontenoy 1745
British and French Guards clash at Fontenoy

Criticism: The two battle maps in the book felt boxy too me. While 18th century warfare was very rigid in its structure, the maps feel odd and seem to exaggerate the number of troops on the field with huge blocks of infantry. The illustrations could also have been placed better in the book, as you find a picture of the French Irish Brigade about 10 pages after you hear about their attack.

The War of Austrian Succession is mostly overlooked, but it still remains a very important war. Maria Theresa kept her claims to the throne, and it eventually led to the Seven Years’ War. Saxe’s strategies influenced Napoleon Bonaparte later in the early 19th century. Seeing the British defeat as an opportunity, the Jacobite Rebellion sprang up in Scotland. While the Battle of Fontenoy was 3 years before the end of the war, it remains a turning point, and a remarkable French victory over the British, Hanoverians, and Dutch.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon

The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms recollects the story of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion at the Battle of Waterloo. The King’s German Legion was made up of infantry, cavalry, and artillery of German states, and they fought valiantly in many battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the original troops were Hanoverian, as are a large portion of the soldiers described in this book.

Image result for the longest afternoon

Praise: Simms uses over thirty primary sources for his book, making sure this story is realistic. The chaos in La Haye Sainte is described in furious detail that makes you feel as if you are right there in the battle. Some characters are very appealing and you find yourself attached to some of the German officers. Simms provides some background on the KGL (King’s German Legion), its formation, its battle honours, and its members. I definitely learned some interesting facts about the culture of the KGL and how they were a heavily bilingual unit and how some even Anglicised their names and married English women.

Criticism: The book focuses on the theme of how these riflemen “won” the Battle of Waterloo. My personal opinion does come through, in which I view the arrival of Prussian troops to be the cause of an allied victory. It’s hard to believe how some 400 riflemen saved the entire battle, but he does make a good case. The map provided of La Haye Sainte isn’t very good and is missing a lot of labels that Simms talks about in his book. The book is a meagre 128 pages, and was priced quite high at about $20. If you’re interested in a short book, go right ahead and read this, but beware the price and trust your libraries.

This book is very short, but, if you’re interested in the British army or the Napoleonic Wars, you should definitely give this a read. It contains many primary sources from German troops, which provide an interesting background to the battle. La Haye Sainte is also a very underrated portion of Waterloo, and this book definitely places heavy importance on the location (but perhaps a bit too much).

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: African Kaiser

African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi focuses on the little-known theatre of the First World War- East Africa. A semi-biography of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and semi-recollection of the East African campaigns, this book gives a lot of information in all 422 of it pages. The book contains maps of Africa circa 1914 and some photos related to von Lettow and the German Schutztruppe. The book covers a lengthy period of German colonialism in Africa, mentioning their backgrounds and the initial unwillingness to participate in imperialism. Von Lettow, “the Lion of Africa”, is one of the Great War’s most fascinating generals, and Gaudi makes sure that his readers are fully aware.

Praise: This book provides a large amount of information that I did not know, and was certainly interested in. Gaudi uses a very smooth writing style which is interesting to read and presents facts in a good way. The book discusses Germany’s background of colonization and Otto von Bismarck’s reluctance to do so. There is information on the Herero Rebellion in German Southwest Africa, the Meji-Meji Rebellion, the Schutztruppe, the diseases troops faced while on campaign in Africa, and much more. Gaudi also uses many Swahili words throughout the book to convey the language of the askari. The extensive bibliography indicates a good use of primary sources as well. African Kaiser is full of adventure into the heart of East Africa, portrayals of vicious bush fighting, and, of course, Oberleutnant Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Interestingly, Gaudi provides a perspective in which one finds it hard to take sides. Neither side is portrayed in such a way that is superior in morals to the other, and that is uncommon in history books. There is almost a familiar connection with British officer Richard Meinertzhagen, as his diaries are used to give a British perspective. The South African units led by Jan Smuts are also covered well.

Criticism:

African Kaiser begins in an extremely strange way, set of the Estonian coast. A large portion of this book seemed to be aimless and unrelated really to the main point of the book. It was only till pg.110 that one sees the first glimpses of German East Africa. There seems to be a lot of talking about pointless things such as the Boxer Rebellion or how certain worms and ailments affect the human body. While I can understand Gaudi for putting these in the book, I am not sure such a large amount of time needed to be spent on it. Yes, von Lettow served in China, and yes the strange beginning ties in with the rest of the book once you read the full chapter (at a stretch), but it felt sometimes as though there was a large amount of “time wasting” and delaying the point that this is a biography of von Lettow and East Africa.

I certainly enjoyed reading African Kaiser, but there were flaws that made it stray from the point. A large focus of this book was the slow process of German colonization, and tying it with von Lettow at any opportune moment. I was skeptical of the book, but when Gaudi began talking about the First World War, the book redeemed most of my doubts. The book is well written and draws readers in, and it is an interesting topic to write about.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: Dutch Armies of the 80 Years’ War 1568-1648 (1)


This book, published by Osprey Publishing, discusses the Dutch Infantry in the wars against the Spanish from 1568-1648. The author, Bouko de Groot, is a graduate of Leiden Clog 1University and served in the Royal Netherlands Army. He outlines the drastic changes that Maurice of Nassau brought to the Dutch military, and later, to the world of pike and shot.
Maurice’s revolutionary tactics are explained well and presented in diagrams drawn by the author. The 80 Years’ War is divided among three separate wars: the Civil War, the War for Independence, and the Coalition War. There is a map of all the locations of battles presented in the book, and de Groot relates tactics and soldiers with examples of certain battles during the wars. The uniforms are covered well, and the author will be releasing a second book about 
the Dutch cavalry, engineers, and artillery later on. 

Praise: I was very pleased with this book, as it uses prints from the era to show some intriguing elements of the Dutch forces. One interesting part of this book is de Groot’s “Regimental Genealogy” which tells you what regiments (Dutch and foreign) served in the Dutch forces at the time. The illustrated plates of the soldiers and their descriptions were very well done by Gerry and Sam Embleton, and it conveys the wide array of weaponry and uniforms that were used in the 80 Years War. There is also an interesting set of illustrations of flags throughout the war. I appreciated the descriptions of the changes in Dutch tactics, and how they affected those of the Germans, English, and Swedes in the 30 Years War, English Civil War, and other battles of the time.

Criticism: Most of my criticism for this book is purely based on my lack of knowledge of the pike and shot era of warfare. De Groot does not explain to you what a “caliver” is, so I looked it up myself, and discovered it was an early musket that had a standardized bore so it was easier to load. These soon were replaced with the matchlock. I felt as if the uniforms could have been described in more detail, perhaps by giving examples of some period dress the units would have worn.

Overall, this book was a great introduction to the 80 Years War, and the development of warfare during the 16th and 17th centuries. I was very pleased, and would definitely say it is worth purchasing if you are interested in that time period, or would like to learn more about tactics of that period as well as the uniforms of Dutch infantry themselves.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

If you would like to read de Groot’s interview with Osprey Publishing, you can find it here

If you would like to purchase “Dutch Armies of the 80 Years’ War”, click here